As 2015 marks the midpoint of the decade, we can now recognize particular trends in the accounting profession that have defined the last five years -- in technology, career paths, and the incoming workforce -- that will also go on to influence the profession and its hiring environment for years to come.

As you might expect, the need to find and retain talent in the accounting profession has put significant increase in salaries. But what you might not anticipate is the increase in expectations placed upon new-hire candidates.

Robert Half's 2015 Salary Guide, an annual report that covers new compensation numbers and emerging workplace trends, emphasized this year that times are changing and that this all starts with incoming new hires.

Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, noted the emerging need for a more diverse candidate, as compared to a decade prior: "It's definitely a different accounting world compared to 10 years ago; we've seen the hiring managers look for a broader skill-set."

According to a Half-conducted survey included in the Guide, 68 percent of interviewed chief financial officers said that it is challenging to find skilled candidates for professional-level positions today. The need for a more diversified and stronger candidate has now become a top priority, not just a perk. "[For instance], when looking for information systems skills, [managers] used to look for proficiency in financial software, but today, they're looking for excellent expertise," McDonald claimed.

The Guide particularly noted that more employers are seeking technology expertise, as accounting moves from a focus on reporting to a focus on analytics.

These technical skills include, but are not limited to, advanced Excel skills, data analytics expertise, advanced modeling techniques, the use of SQL, and knowledge of large enterprise resource planning systems.

McDonald also stressed that "compliance expertise is so important today," in the wake of heavy compliance and regulatory needs that have arisen via the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "The law is complex, and financial professionals are needed to help employers understand and comply with its new tax provisions, coverage mandates, information-reporting requirements and other stipulations," the Guide states.

Additionally, McDonald pointed to international expertise as a desired trait in an interconnected world: "It's not only experience or accounting for multiple countries, but also the language -- Spanish and Chinese are really being highlighted, recently."

In conjunction with black-and-white technical skills, McDonald says that hiring managers are looking more and more for soft skills, for people who can communicate well face-to-face and in presentations - a need for "business acumen, the understanding of emotional quotients, [and] how to really engage in clients."

"A decade ago, when we saw people with these [communication] skills, they were extraordinary," McDonald continued. "Today, it's how to get into the game. Combined with a high GPA and extracurriculars, they are things that put you into the above-average category. As technology has done more for us, it causes hiring managers to look for these skills early on in their careers."

 

INSIDE ACCOUNTING FIRMS

So where should the well-prepared new hire of 2015 head? According to the Salary Guide, top talent in the profession doesn't have to wonder long: "Public accounting firms are facing the same talent-pool challenges other organizations are encountering as they attempt to add to their ranks. Top students are being recruited actively while still in college, and many have job offers well before graduation."

"People feel that going into audit is a great career path and I would agree to that," McDonald explained. "Look at that as your springboard; you're able to home in on good business exposure. It's a funnel approach: You have to think more broadly when you're a new grad. It's about building your expertise, then you can move into corporate and that gives you an opportunity to be more specialized."

McDonald also urges new grads to "take and pass the CPA Exam as soon as you can. It has never been more important than today." The Salary Guide also confirms that it is still "the most sought-after designation for accounting and finance roles."

According to the 2015 Salary Guide, the salary range for entry-level audit assurance services staff at large public firms was $56,000-$68,000, and $49,500-$61,750 at midsized firms, a 2.9 and 2.8 percent increase from 2014, respectively. Salary ranges for entry-level tax services staff at large and midsized firms were $55,750-$69,750 at large firms and $49,250-$62,500 at midsized firms, indicating a 2.9 and 3 percent increase, respectively, from 2014.

Concerning small public firms, entry-level staff in audit assurance services can expect a salary range of $45,750-$56,500, a 2.8 percent increase from last year. Entry level tax service hires at a small firm will see a similar range of $46,500-$56,500, a 2.7 percent increase from 2014.

Notably, senior positions in tax services saw the highest overall salary increase from last year, with senior and manager-level positions in large and midsized firms, respectively, both seeing a 3.9 percent increase.

As for hiring managers, the process of attracting and retaining sought-after talent has become a game of reflexes: "If you're a hiring manager, expect to speed the hiring process as best you can by doing your best due diligence," McDonald added. "Don't delay if you find a top candidate, but don't skip any part of the process."

 

COMPETING FOR STAFF

The Salary Guide notes that many professionals start their careers in public accounting, but CPA firms face competition from the corporate sector when it comes to long-term hiring and retention.

As a result, public firms are looking at an increase in work-life balance perks -- including telecommuting options and additional vacation time - to keep the new generation of professionals locked in.

"It's easier to retain than to find a new employee," said McDonald. "I predict they'll keep the existing employee engaged to lower [the] risk of turnover, and you do that with constant communication, perks, and career mapping. Firms are increasing salaries and benefits, [as well as] work-life balance, the non-monetary benefits -- shutting the office down on Friday afternoons."

As Millenials start to enter and shape the workplace, slight changes in protocol only seem natural. And while it's not known for certain what the firms of the future will exactly look like, it's fair to say that the new generation of professionals have already started to impact the field.

"Five years ago, the Boomers were trying to conform the new grads," McDonald said. "Today, the Boomers are embracing the Gen Y generation, learning and taking some of the best practices from them. There's greater respect for them."

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